What was illegal yesterday, will be legal tomorrow. Adding a twist to the turf tussle in town, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government is set to “regularise” projects encroaching on wetlands and farmland — for a fat fee, of course.
At last count, Calcutta and its neighbouring districts account for 14,015 such “illegal” constructions — housing estates, industrial estates, foundry parks, individual houses and other development projects — that have altered the original character of their site.
Bowing to pressure from the builders’ bloc, the land reforms department has decided to shift the goalposts on the wetlands yet again and allow these establishments to stand, but only after “hefty fines” have been coughed up by the offenders.
Land reforms minister Abdur Rezzak Molla, who had been raring to embark on a demolition drive against the promoters of two projects on a section of the East Calcutta Wetlands not so long ago, is today toeing a different line.
Molla told Metro that his department was mulling an amendment to the West Bengal Land Reforms Act, 1955, to give post facto approval to cases of land conversion.
Last year, Molla had moved a piece of legislation, making it mandatory for all municipal bodies to get their building plans vetted by the land reforms department to check if the project was violating land laws. The same department has now decided to regularise all cases pending before it.
The green lobby is seeing red over this realty bite. S.R. Banerjee, state director of WWF, said: “We will be forced to take legal recourse if such a step is taken. We cannot allow the floodgates of construction on the wetlands to be opened in such a manner.”
If Molla has his way, the 294 cases of violation of the Ramsar site will also be legalised. In a bid to mollify critics, the minister said: “Of all the kinds of land conversion, we will be strictest with offences relating to the wetlands. Offenders will have to seek consent from the fisheries and environment departments. We may even ask them to create another waterbody for the one filled up.”
His department officials added that a promoter on the wetlands might be spared the axe for a higher penalty. But “no action” will be taken against those who had filled up waterbodies measuring up to five cottahs, they added.
Illegal land conversion is punishable under the Land and Land Reforms Act, 1955, with three years’ imprisonment and a fine of Rs 50,000.
“However, the Act doesn’t have provisions for post facto approval, when such conversion has already taken place. These cases have been pending for several years now. We realise that sending people to prison is not the solution. What is done is done. We will now have to regularise such constructions,” said a senior land and land reforms department officer.